Analysis: US has a lot to do to win African hearts and minds


Aaron Maasho and Pascal Fletcher

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United States President Barack Obama. Picture: Jim Lo ScalzoUS Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power (left), sitting with South Africa's Deputy Minister of Public Service Ayanda Dlodlo, moderates a panel discussion on the Open Government Partnership (OGP) during the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington on August 4, 2014. Picture: Jonathan Ernst

ASK Major-General Wayne Grigsby jr, the top US military officer in Africa, how he thinks the US- and European-backed African troops are faring in their war on Islamist militants in Somalia, and his answer comes back smartly: “Pretty darn good!”

But as “son of Africa” US President Barack Obama hosts 50 African leaders in Washington this week, the admiration may be less than mutual. Many Africans feel America is lagging behind China and others in its engagement with their continent.

The US-Africa Leaders Summit, which started yesterday and ends tomorrow, is billed by US officials as a first-of-its-kind event. But it looks like a belated imitation of Africa gatherings hosted in recent years by China, India, Japan and the continent’s former colonial master, Europe.

The world’s richest nation has been slow to come to the party of an economically rising Africa.

“The US has fallen perhaps a little bit behind in the race to win African hearts and minds. So I think this is an attempt to compete with the likes of China and the EU,” Christopher Wood, an analyst at the SA Institute of International Affairs, said.

The top US diplomat for Africa, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, bridles at suggestions the Obama administration is playing catch-up. “Absolutely not. Our relationship with Africa is a very strong historic relationship… We see this as an opportunity to reaffirm that to African leaders.”

China overtook the US as Africa’s biggest trade partner in 2009. Its leaders have criss-crossed the continent, proffering multibillion-dollar loans, aid and investment deals. From Malabo to Maputo, Africa is studded with signs of Beijing’s diplomatic and commercial outreach.

Since 2009, Obama, despite his African blood through his Kenyan father, has been a far less frequent visitor. His first substantial trip was last year.

Washington’s fortified embassies in Africa project a cautious engagement. The Obama administration is highly sensitive to a home public that no longer has the appetite for overseas interventions.

Grigsby, surrounded by F-18s, C130 transporters, helicopters and Humvees at his Camp Lemonnier toehold in Djibouti, on the turbulent Horn of Africa, acknowledges the US military’s “small footprint” on the continent.

Security, governance and democracy will be on the agenda when Obama engages the leaders in an “interactive” discussion tomorrow, following business talks with US chief executives today. Discussions yesterday were about health and wildlife trafficking.

Presidents Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan are among a few left off the invitation list because they are not “in good standing” with Washington for failing to respect human rights and democracy.

Presidents Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone have dropped out because of the deadly Ebola epidemic ravaging their nations. Thomas-Greenfield said ways of fighting the outbreak would be discussed at the summit.

Some concrete initiatives are expected from the meeting. The US will announce nearly $1 billion (R10.6bn) in business deals, increase funding for peacekeeping in six African countries and boost food and power programmes.

Uppermost, too, will be Obama’s strong recommendation for Congress to renew the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), a 14-year-old trade programme giving most African countries duty-free access to US markets. Agoa expires in September next year.

US two-way trade in Africa has fallen off in recent years, to about $60bn last year. It is far eclipsed by the EU with over $200bn and China, whose $170bn is a huge increase from $10bn in 2000, according to a recent Africa in Focus post by the Brookings Institution.

While African leaders are keen on the renewal of Agoa, Robert Besseling, an analyst at consultancy IHS, said some were seeking better terms of trade. “Some countries are sceptical about Agoa because it is orientated towards US companies and can be politically manipulated.”

For example, Swaziland was cut from Agoa last month because of US concerns over democracy there.

Obama officials are hoping to leverage US corporations like General Electric, Caterpillar and Procter & Gamble into more business opportunities in Africa amid intense competition from across the globe.

“In the boards of directors of big global US companies, more and more people are raising their hands at meetings and saying ‘Why aren’t we in Africa?’,” said Toby Moffett, a former congressman and a senior adviser at law firm Mayer Brown who has represented African governments.

Orji Uzor Kalu, a Nigerian businessman with oil, tourism and other interests in west Africa, echoed such complaints. “I’m not seeing the effort the US made in Asia; they’re not making the same effort in Africa.” – Reuters

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